As members of the Adath Yeshurun Synagogue in Aiken a week ago listened with admiration and ongoing gratitude, Henry Windmuller read a portion of the sacred Torah during the Saturday morning service.
He brings not only that skill, but a remarkable history.
The congregation celebrated the 89th birthday of a man who escaped the Holocaust as a young teenager in 1938, only to face unlikely and dangerous challenges for several more years – confined at one time in a Canadian POW camp with Nazi soldiers.
The Aiken synagogue has always had services, but few have been able to read the Torah in the Hebrew calligraphy in which it is written. Windmuller had moved to Aiken in 2005 to be near his son Roy and began attending the synagogue.
“Then he said he could read the Torah from his background as a kid in Germany,” said Ernie Levinson, a synagogue lay leader. “He is very modest, but what happens is that his reading becomes very emotional for us. ... It is a joy to see this man with the Torah, and you can tell he really enjoys it.”
The synagogue is also fortunate to have another member, Judith Evans, also a Holocaust survivor. She provides interpretations of the Torah readings.
Windmuller was born in the town of Andernach, Germany, in 1924. His sister, Ilse, is a year younger.
Their mother died in 1932, and when the Nazis took power the following year, “There was no childhood in those days,” Windmuller said. “You grew up overnight.”
Boys at his school started waiting for him and would beat him up. There were only a few Jewish boys, and the others hated them, but no one thought to ask why, he said.
Windmuller's father, Max, found it hard to making a living with the cloth he peddled. He married a woman with two young children because of economic necessity.
People in nearby villages became afraid to purchase anything. By the time the boy was 14 in 1938, he could only attend a Jewish school in another town. He lived in the dormitory and no one anticipated anybody would bother them.
But, in 1938, the Kristallnacht began, with eventually 1,000 synagogues burned down. Soldiers and civilians arrived at Windmuller's school and broke down the door. He and another boy escaped out of a back door, but the others inside were arrested, although the students his age were eventually let go, he said.
Windmuller and the other student stayed in the woods at the city that day, watching the looting of stores and the synagogue and the burning of the Torahs and other sacred books.
By the time Windmuller managed to return home, he learned his father had been arrested. For a week, the family did not know where Max Windmuller had been taken, only to learn he was moved to Dachau, a prison camp at the time.
“He did come home the first of December, having been released,” Windmuller said. “At that time, the camps were not the death camps to the degree in which they would become.”
His father then decided to put Henry and Ilse on a Kindertransport – a train that would get about 100 children and teens to England by way of the Dutch border.
For reasons they didn't understand, Windmuller and Isle were taken to Edinborough, Scotland. A family took Isle in, while Henry soon was given an apprenticeship position in a restaurant.
He lived on his small salary and was gratified not to be a burden on others. Yet Henry and Isle had managed to get their father out of Germany; a week later, and he would have been taken to Auschwitz, he said.
By May 1940, the Germans had invaded Holland, Belgium and France. The Nazi Fifth Column had emerged, and the word was being spread that he Nazis were planting “ringers” among the Jews.
The English officials were concerned and, to Henry's surprise, he was arrested. He was sent to a POW camp, which were initially filled with Italians.
Henry and other boys stole their bags so they could have straw to sleep on. The Italians were shipped out in a few weeks and brought in were Nazis, “and that was not a good thing.”
Max Windmuller, too, was arrested, but was soon released. With the help of other Jewish people in England and family members in Connecticut, he was able to obtain permission to enter the United States. But Henry was still in the camp, and his sister could not leave Scotland.
Remarkably, Henry Windmuller was then shipped out on a boat, headed to another POW camp in Canada. The ship carried the Nazis, German Communists and other Jewish boys. The Nazi soldiers were talking about throwing the kids off the ship. When Windmuller and other boys heard the Nazis talking about hijacking the ship and taking it to Germany, the boys told the English officers and ended the threat.
The ship traveled to the St. Lawrence River, and everyone was shipped to Redrock, Ontario. For two weeks, the temperature never got above minus-40 degrees.
But Windmuller's far greater fear was the German POWs. When a doctor visiting the camp turned out to be Jewish, Windmuller expressed his anguish. The doctor was shocked and got in touch with the Jewish community in Montreal, which had the boys moved to another camp.
From there, Windmuller was able to contact his father. Incredibly, he was still officially a German POW. Officials understood he wasn't a dangerous person, but he had to return to England and then went onto Glasgow Scotland, and again found a job in a restaurant.
His sister, now 17, then joined him, and friends of Henry got her a job as an apprentice in a millinery business. A few weeks later, Ilse became ill. A doctor did not realize she had diphtheria and Ilse died that night.
“She could have been cured,” Windmuller said. “That was the hardest thing I ever did, to write my father than my sister was dead.”
Earlier, he had been told at the American Consulate that he would have to enter the U.S. Military, and he readily agreed.
Devastated by the loss of his sister, Windmuller arrived in America and was reunited with his father and other relatives. He reported to the draft board. They had no papers for him, but he was willing to go into the Army as a regular draftee.
In order to go overseas, Windmuller was sworn in as a citizen and, unexpectedly, he was sent to Honolulu, spending the rest of the war there as a cook.
He returned to Connecticut after the war and went back into the restaurant business. Windmuller married Babette Rothschild and had sons Roy and Brian. He later spent 32 years as an executive in a tool factory. His wife passed away in 2005.
They were long active in the synagogue in Hartford. Windmuller did not read the Torah there, but he did occasionally read the Haftorah – blessings that would follow the Torah reading.
When Windmuller started attending services in Aiken, he had trouble reading the regular prayer book.
“I offered to read out of the Torah and that was it. 'You are hired,' they told me,” he said with a smile. “I like doing it, as it engages your brain a little bit. I don't have to do the whole weekly portion, so I look up the portion I want.”
Windmuller is so dependable, a man of knowledge, said Elliott Levy, the synagogue president.
“Henry brings so much tradition and the old Europe from that generation,” Levy said. “Most of our families came from there, too, and he has the ability to teach us a lot. I never knew my grandfathers, and Henry is the grandfather I didn't have. That makes this so special.”
STAFF PHOTO BY ROB NOVIT Henry Windmuller reads a portion of the Torah to prepare for a morning service at Adath Yeshurun Synagogue scheduled in March. He escaped the Holocaust in 1938, only to face the startling action in England that resulted in his incarceration in Canada as a POW.×
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